This is the 34th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
I discovered poker as a grown adult approaching middle age, but I was a hustler in college as well. I was a decent chess player, and used to offer a prop bet to people with the following terms: ‘I will play 10 games with you, and will win all ten. If you even draw one, you win the bet.’ I never made this bet with anyone I’d seen on the circuit, thus guaranteeing that all my customers were patzers, and unlike in poker, the quantum of luck in chess is low enough that I won this bet every time I made it. One of my early victims, dazzled by my magisterial play, asked me what the difference between me and him was. ‘How many moves ahead do you think?’ he asked. ‘The same as you,’ I replied.
A famous study by Adriaan de Groot published in 1946 showed that, contrary to what you might expect, novices and expert players think more or less the same number of moves ahead. The difference in quality arises because the experts think the right moves ahead. Their candidate moves for analysis, in other words, are better moves to begin with. Their skill lies not in depth of analysis, but in understanding the nature of a position, which, in turn, comes from better pattern recognition. A grandmaster will look at a position not as a conglomeration of individual pieces, but in chunks of pieces that form recognisable patterns. He will understand the positional vulnerabilities of different kinds of patterns, and the tactical motifs that recur in these spots. In a spot where a novice thinks ‘If I threaten this piece, he’ll move it here to counter me,’ the grandmaster may think, ‘His pawn structure has weakened his dark squares, let me exploit that weakness and exchange off my weak white-squared bishop for his strong knight on c6.’ Guess who is more likely to win.
Why do I write about chess in a poker column? Well, there is exactly the same difference between beginning poker players and experienced ones. Beginners think in terms of what hand they have and how it connects with the board, and graduate to this from thinking about their opponent’s hand, and from there to considering what hand the opponent puts them on. But good players think not in terms of hands but ranges. They never ask, in any spot, ‘Am I ahead here?’ but ‘What is my equity here?’ and ‘How can I maximise my EV?’ They have a better sense of how specific ranges interact with different board textures, and can plan for future streets.
For example, let’s say you call with KJ on the button after a nit raises UTG, and the flop comes 876 two-tone. A beginner may give up when the nit c-bets, but a pro will usually continue in the hand and take down the pot with either immediate or future aggression, because the flop texture is terrible for the UTG’s range of big pairs and high cards, and most turns and rivers are bad for him. Indeed, this will be practically a reflexive decision for the pro, requiring no thinking at all. He would play this hand better than the novice not because his reads are better or he has a better poker face or suchlike, but because he understands the underlying math better.
Here’s one thing common to both chess and poker: the bad player does not know what he does not know. So here’s a tip on how to get better at both games: play a hell of a lot, and stay humble. The day you stop learning, you will be the fish at the table.